Criterion Sunday 122: Salesman (1968)

The idea of going door-to-door selling Bibles is hardly one that you imagine can be particularly lucrative, and yet there are plenty of people we see doing just this in the seminal late-60s documentary Salesman (another film from the Maysles brothers and Charlotte Zwerin, predating by a couple of years their Gimme Shelter). But the film is not just about a bunch of guys in grey suits selling (or failing to sell) Bibles: it’s about a way of life under capitalism, and the toll it takes on those who follow it. Amongst the four or five salesmen we see (each of whom have animal nicknames), Paul “The Badger” Brennan is the one who stands out — hollow-eyed, with a punchy, almost angry, insistence on trying to win over people, which he is finding increasingly difficult (you can imagine him being played in a film by Bryan Cranston). He holds dear (whether for personal or business reasons) his Irish Catholic background and frequently lapses into an almost-mocking Irish accent when talking about his customers, but he also fails to see how poor so many of them are, how little need they have for a deluxe new $50 Bible for their home, and how stretched they’d be to afford it. Because that struggle to keep going — whether Paul in his selling, or the families he’s selling to — is another of the film’s themes. You get the sense that it will never work out, and the black-and-white photography and the men’s identical grey suits and salaryman demeanour make it seem (and must have surely seemed even on release) as a document out of time, bound never to fit in, like the product they’re hawking.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Directors Albert Maysles, David Maysles and Charlotte Zwerin | Cinematographer Albert Maysles | Length 91 minutes || Seen at a friend’s home (DVD), London, Sunday 2 October 2016 (and earlier on VHS at home, Wellington, early-2000s)

Criterion Sunday 118: Sullivan’s Travels (1941)

Of all Preston Sturges’ output — he had a glorious run in the 1940s, in particular — this is the film that tends to get most often featured as his pinnacle. And yet, and yet. I assume I’d be missing the point to say this is a film about an absurdly privileged paternalistic condescending white man, a film director no less, who learns a Truth about poor folk: that comedy films are what the people want and that he’s been wrong to speak down to his audience. I mean, as far as Lessons go, it’s a good one, but it does rather require sitting through a lot of Joel McCrea being a pampered, pompous cretin. After all, he’s been wanting to make a serious work of Art, a disquisition on the plight of Man: O Brother, Where Art Thou? (it was left to the Coen brothers many years later to imagine just how this director character might have fused drama and comedy). Of course, yes, Sullivan’s Travels is a commentary on the operation of class privilege, but yet there’s plenty in the film that still irks me (as just one example, that he showed no contrition whatsoever for assaulting a railway worker with a rock). The ending suggests Sturges’ intentions are good — and the scene in the church with the black pastor is beautifully moving — but as a comedy it has a streak of meanness to it that makes it a frustrating film for me at least. Veronica Lake as “the girl” (nice work with that name) doesn’t impress as a great actor on this outing, but I love her character’s attitude for much of the film, at least, and could have stood to see more of it. I don’t wish to dispute the film’s Great-ness overly, but it just impresses me less than Sturges’ other films upon rewatching.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director/Writer Preston Sturges | Cinematographer John Seitz | Starring Joel McCrea, Veronica Lake | Length 90 minutes || Seen at a friend’s home (DVD), London, Sunday 4 September 2016 (and earlier on VHS at university, Wellington, March 1998)

Criterion Sunday 117: Le Journal d’une femme de chambre (Diary of a Chambermaid, 1964)

Less of a black comedy than some of Buñuel’s other French films, this is more a portrait of the upper-classes during the 1930s as seen by the maid of the title (played well by Jeanne Moreau). There’s perversity of course and, as you’d expect from Buñuel, a feckless priest, but this film touches more on the spectre of fascism, with the casual anti-Semitism of the rural peasantry and incipient nationalist fervour always in the background. Fine widescreen monochrome lensing gives a bourgeois finish to a troubling tale.

As an aside, it was also interesting for me to watch this right after Nelly Kaplan’s La Fiancée du Pirate (1969), as that feels in retrospect like a satirical extension of the psychosexual undertow of this film, and if you get a chance to see it, do.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Luis Buñuel | Writers Luis Buñuel and Jean-Claude Carrière | Cinematographer Roger Fellous | Starring Jeanne Moreau, Michel Piccoli, Françoise Lugagne, Georges Géret | Length 97 minutes || Seen at a friend’s home (DVD), London, Sunday 11 September 2016

Heremias: Unang aklat — Ang alamat ng prinsesang bayawak (Heremias: Book One — The Legend of the Lizard Princess, 2006)

Right, you probably all know this film is long: it’s Lav Diaz, and events will unfold as they will. Once you get over that — and the title which playfully suggests some kind of mystical/fantasy epic poem — the movement of time isn’t really an issue, and there’s necessarily a sort of documentary effect to the extreme length, as we watch our titular protagonist (Ronnie Lazaro) trudge along endless roads with a group of vendors selling their wares from ox-drawn carts. Heremias at length peels off on his own, and, at length, gets caught in a typhoon, from which he takes shelter. When he wakes, his cow has gone and his cart is burnt. By this point, we’re at around hour four and this is the mysterious crime he’s trying to unravel (after a fashion), but things go off track again and there’s a criminal conspiracy which reveals the limits of power in an autocratic society. So there are political themes (present in much of Diaz’s work that I’ve seen), and then there’s the repeated motif of roads stretching off across the landscape, into which (or from the horizon of which) Heremias trudges, seemingly endlessly. At great, great length.


SPECIAL SCREENING FILM REVIEW: Lav Diaz Journeys retrospective
Director/Writer Lav Diaz | Cinematographer Tamara Benitez | Starring Ronnie Lazaro, Sid Lucero | Length 510 minutes || Seen at London Gallery West, London, Friday 3 February 2017

Criterion Sunday 116: Kakushi toride no san akunin (The Hidden Fortress, 1958)

By this point, Kurosawa knew pretty well how to craft a samurai film as a version of a Western. There’s an effortless feel to his filmmaking, probably helped here by focusing the story so much around not Toshiro Mifune’s warrior, but instead the foolish comedy characters of the peasant duo (Minoru Chiaki and Kamatari Fujiwara) whose avarice constantly blinds them to the dangers they’re in. Of course Mifune does his eye-catching thing of being strong and supportive as the General of a defeated tribe, while the tribe’s Princess (Misa Uehara) shows quite a bit of self-determination, even if she can’t be in a scene — even ostensibly disguised as a peasant — without looking obviously imperious. To that extent, some of the adventurous heroics strain credulity, but the film never sacrifices character-grounded observation to action setpieces or silly plot contrivances. This is a film that remains invested in its characters most of all.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Akira Kurosawa | Writers Shinobu Hashimoto, Ryuzo Kikushima, Akira Kurosawa and Hideo Oguni | Cinematographer Kazuo Yamasaki | Starring Toshiro Mifune, Misa Uehara, Minoru Chiaki, Kamatari Fujiwara | Length 139 minutes || Seen at a friend’s home (DVD), London, Friday 26 August 2016

Criterion Sunday 115: Du rififi chez les hommes (Rififi, 1955)

This film is generally acclaimed as a classic of the heist genre and justifiably so. Indeed, there are some pretty clear reasons, chief among them the impressive way in which an extended, almost silent, sequence of the gang breaking into a safe is handled. Nevertheless, for all writer/director/star Jules Dassin’s nous behind the camera — and indeed in front of it, decked out as he is in a stylish bowtie (why can’t gangsters have that kind of style anymore?) — the film devolves into a morality play for its last half that feels a little backwards looking. Again, it’s all classic genre stuff nowadays: the criminal gang divided amongst themselves, fractured not just by the investigations of the police but by internecine squabbling over the lucre. Still, the style and the performances of Rififi carry it ably.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Jules Dassin | Writers Auguste Le Breton, Jules Dassin and René Wheeler (based on the novel by Le Breton) | Cinematographer Philippe Agostini | Starring Jean Servais, Robert Manuel, Carl Möhner, Jules Dassin | Length 115 minutes || Seen at a friend’s home (streaming), London, Thursday 4 August 2015

Criterion Sunday 114: My Man Godfrey (1936)

All of a sudden the Criterion Collection seemed to become interested in 1930s screwball comedy with a number of fine Preston Sturges films, and alongside them this example from director Gregory La Cava, a somewhat underrated director responsible for the very odd Gabriel Over the White House (1933). His political viewpoint seems to come from FDR’s New Deal following the Depression, and there are fascinating ideological contortions at work, as an initial setup criticising the way capitalism reifies and recycles human beings ultimately gives way to a upper-class family-based knockabout comedy. The operation of class in the USA is always there in the background, even if it’s never clearer than in the opening sequence, as the imperious socialite Cornelia (Gail Patrick) and her ditzier sister Irene (Carole Lombard), both from a wealthy family, visit a bridge to grab a homeless man, Godfrey (William Powell). This is all in pursuit of a game they’re playing with their aristocratic friends, whereby they get points for parading him as a prize. Yet Godfrey turns out to be a quick wit and scrubs up nicely, so Irene hires him as the family’s butler, promptly falling in love with him too. That’s largely how things proceed, as further reversals of fortune take place, and it becomes apparent that Godfrey is not what he initially seemed. Still, it’s all great fun, and Powell is a compelling screen presence.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Gregory La Cava | Writers Eric Hatch and Morrie Ryskind (based on Hatch’s novel 1101 Park Avenue) | Cinematographer Ted Tetzlaff | Starring William Powell, Carole Lombard, Gail Patrick, Eugene Pallette, Alice Brady | Length 92 minutes || Seen at a friend’s home (DVD), London, Friday 19 August 2016

Criterion Sunday 113: I soliti ignoti (Big Deal on Madonna Street, 1958)

Apologies for this remarkably brief review; I watched it in a state of half-sleep, though I found it likeable, I don’t really have much to contribute…

A jolly Italian farce modelled on Rififi and the like, in which a bunch of fairly incompetent criminals try to take on a job they’re not really equipped to do. There are some good comic turns, and it moves along at a clip.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Mario Monicelli | Writers Agenore Incrocci, Furio Scarpelli, Suso Cecchi D’Amore and Mario Monicelli | Cinematographer Gianni Di Venanzo | Starring Vittorio Gassman, Marcello Mastroianni | Length 111 minutes || Seen at a friend’s home (DVD), London, Sunday 14 August 2016

Criterion Sunday 110: Les Vacances de M. Hulot (Mr Hulot’s Holiday aka Monsieur Hulot’s Holiday, 1953)

The Mr Hulot character is probably director-writer Jacques Tati’s most enduring comic creation. He’s a bumbling, almost speechless chap bent over a cane, with a distinctive floppy hat and long pipe, who wanders around getting involved in comedy situations, though just as often merely witness to the these (certainly by the time of later films like Mon oncle and Play Time, he’s more audience than actor). With a plot that sees Hulot off on his holidays in a rickety old car to the beach, we get to see him striding around the guest house, eating in the restaurant, taking sun on the beach — all very reminiscent of, and undoubtedly mined by, later British comedies like Fawlty Towers and Mr Bean. There’s an implicit contrast between Hulot’s backward ways and the big modern cars, private cabins, and antisocial behaviour of the aspirational holidaymakers. It all moves along in a very likeable way, with nice careful use of sound effects, creating a very quiet, almost contemplative, atmosphere in which the comedy unfolds.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Jacques Tati | Writers Jacques Tati and Henri Marquet | Cinematographers Jacques Mercanton and Jean Mousselle | Starring Jacques Tati | Length 86 minutes || Seen at home (Blu-ray), London, Sunday 24 July 2016 (and earlier on VHS at home, Wellington, December 2001)

Criterion Sunday 109: The Scarlet Empress (1934)

After some genre-defining silent films (which we’ll get to much later on in the Criterion Collection), Austro-Hungarian émigré director Josef von Sternberg did a run of films with Marlene Dietrich — the first in Germany (The Blue Angel, 1930) but the rest in the United States. In some ways these defined something else in cinema, every bit as important as a narrative structure, which is a sense of the fetishisation of the actor as icon. Obviously there had been stars before Dietrich, but the quality that Sternberg gets across in his run of films with her is something else, something more profound, something almost magical. His penultimate film with her was The Scarlet Empress, and alongside the shimmering beauty of Dietrich — the burnished close-ups, the flamboyant dress — this must rank as some kind of masterpiece of set design. Every image is crammed with baroque detail, every shot framed by grotesque sculptures presiding creepily over the action. This latter largely revolves around Dietrich on her road to becoming the Empress Catherine II, “Catherine the Great”, married into Russian nobility (the mad Peter, played with wide-eyed intensity by Sam Jaffe) and learning the ways of the court and methods of extending her power. The camerawork and lighting is bravura, but it’s those stylish set touches that only heighten the film’s giddy campness and emphasise how much Sternberg has given to the cinema in the 20th century. Stars would never again shine quite as brightly.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Josef von Sternberg | Writer Manuel Komroff (based on a diary by Catherine II) | Cinematographer Bert Glennon | Starring Marlene Dietrich, John Lodge, Louise Dresser, Sam Jaffe | Length 104 minutes || Seen at a friend’s home (DVD), London, Sunday 31 July 2016 (and earlier on VHS at home, Wellington, April 2001)